Justia U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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Robinson was convicted of assault with intent to commit murder, being a felon in possession of a firearm, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. Under Michigan’s complex sentencing scheme, the judge sentenced Robinson as a fourth habitual offender to “concurrent terms of 47-1/2 to 120 years’ imprisonment for the assault and felon-in-possession convictions, to be served consecutive to two years’ imprisonment for the felony-firearm conviction.” The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed; the Michigan Supreme Court denied review. Robinson then filed a federal habeas corpus petition, which was denied. On appeal, Robinson argued that Supreme Court and state decisions postdating his sentencing have established that his sentence was imposed in violation of the Sixth Amendment. The Sixth Circuit vacated. Robinson’s sentencing claim undoubtedly has merit; the Supreme Court’s Alleyne decision clearly established the unconstitutionality of Michigan’s sentencing regime. However, Robinson did not “fairly present” his sentencing claim to the Michigan Supreme Court and failed to exhaust that claim in state court. On remand, the district court should decide whether to dismiss Robinson’s sentencing claim without prejudice for failure to exhaust or to stay the petition and hold it in abeyance while Robinson returns to state court to exhaust that claim. Stay and abeyance is appropriate only “when the district court determines there was good cause for the petitioner’s failure to exhaust his claims first in state court” and when the claims are not “plainly meritless.” View "Robinson v. Horton" on Justia Law

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Cavazos and Serrano transported cocaine from Texas to Kentucky at the request of undercover FBI officers. Both pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute 500 grams or more of cocaine, 21 U.S.C. 841(a)(1), 846. The government gave notice that 21 U.S.C. 841(b)(1)(B) subjected them to enhanced statutory punishments because of prior felony drug convictions. Cavazos unsuccessfully objected to basing the enhancement on his 2004 federal conviction for possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine. Serrano orally affirmed his prior conviction. The court calculated Cavazos’s sentencing range as 84-105 months. The statutory minimum enhanced the Guidelines recommendation to 120 months; the court imposed that sentence. The court found that Serrano’s prior federal conviction for conspiracy to possess with intent to deliver cocaine and prior Texas conviction for possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver qualified as predicate offenses under USSG 4B1.2; calculated Serrano’s guidelines range to be 262-327 months; and sentenced Serrano to 262 months. The Sixth Circuit affirmed Cavazos’s sentence. The court properly applied the enhancement; 21 U.S.C. 851(e) prevents any challenge to a prior conviction used to enhance the statutory penalty under section 841(b)(1)(B) when five years have elapsed between the prior conviction and “the information alleging such prior conviction.” The court vacated Serrano’s sentence. The Texas law under which Serrano was previously convicted included attempted delivery of controlled substances and was too broad to categorically qualify as “controlled substance offenses” under section 4B1.2. View "United States v. Serrano" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Williams was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for his role in a drive-by shooting outside a Detroit nightclub. The trial was marked by outbursts, threats toward witnesses, and offensive language by witnesses, spectators, and counsel. After a particularly contentious incident involving a witness and defense counsel, the court took protective action, temporarily closing the courtroom to spectators before reopening it a few days later. On direct appeal, and in this habeas proceeding, Williams argued that the temporary closure violated his Sixth Amendment right to a public trial. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of relief. Williams’s trial counsel failed to object to the closure, so Williams defaulted his public trial claim in the state proceeding. He has not overcome that failure by showing that his counsel was constitutionally ineffective, which might otherwise constitute cause and prejudice excusing the default. Regardless of whether closing the courtroom was an error, Williams cannot establish that his defense was prejudiced by the closure. The vast majority of his trial took place in an open setting, transcripts were made available from the limited sessions that took place behind closed doors, and the closure had no discernable effect on the judge, counsel, or jury. Nor did the temporary closure “lead to basic unfairness.” View "Williams v. Burt" on Justia Law

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Ramamoorthy, an Indian citizen living in the U.S., took a redeye flight, sitting between his wife and Laura. Laura claims she suddenly awoke to find her pants unzipped and Ramamoorthy shoving his fingers into her vagina. She alerted the flight attendants. Airport police met Ramamoorthy in the jetway, asking “What’s going on?” Ramamoorthy began talking about Laura, claiming that she fell asleep on him and that he did not know where he had put his hands. Ramamoorthy made a written statement that Laura had slept on him, that he had been in a “deep sleep,” and that he did not remember where he had put his hands. The officers arrested Ramamoorthy. Before asking Ramamoorthy any questions, FBI agents gave him a written Miranda waiver form. Ramamoorthy signed it after reading his rights aloud and discussing them for several minutes. Ramamoorthy admitted that he had tried to put his fingers inside Laura’s pants. An indictment accused Ramamoorthy of both attempted and completed sexual abuse, 18 U.S.C. 2242(2), which have the same punishment. Ramamoorthy moved to suppress his statements to the FBI, claiming that he did not speak English fluently. He did not seek to suppress his statements to the airport police. The court denied the motion, finding Ramamoorthy “articulate." A jury instruction explained that completed sexual abuse and attempted sexual abuse were two ways of committing sexual abuse, “all twelve of you must agree that at least one of these has been proved; however, all of you need not agree that the same one has been proved.” The Sixth Circuit affirmed Ramamoorthy's conviction and 108-month sentence, rejecting claims that his right to a unanimous jury verdict was violated because his indictment was duplicitous and that the statements he made to airport police and to the FBI should have been suppressed. View "United States v. Ramamoorthy" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Plaintiffs, Michigan inmates adhere to a religion called Christian Identity. Plaintiffs believe that their religion requires the observance of seven “Biblical Holy Days,” weekly group worship on the Sabbath, baptism by full-body immersion, and that Caucasians not mix with other races “in marriage and worship” and that people of different races not cohabitate. In other areas of life, plaintiffs apparently have no objection to interacting with people of other races. Plaintiffs contend they cannot engage in group worship because the Department of Corrections does not recognize Christian Identity as a religion. While they are allowed to attend the services of other religions that have been recognized, they do not because of the differences between Christian Identity and other faiths. One inmate believes that not being baptized “affects [his] salvation of [his] eternal soul." The district court rejected a challenged under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, 42 U.S.C. 2000cc (RLUIPA). The Sixth Circuit reversed. The sincerity of the plaintiffs’ beliefs is not at issue. Under RLUIPA’s second step, the plaintiffs have established that the policy substantially burdens their exercise of religion. At step three, the burden shifts to the Department to prove that the imposition of the substantial burden on plaintiffs’ religious exercise was “in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest” and that it used “the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.” The district court made no findings on those questions. View "Fox v. Washington" on Justia Law

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In 2008, Marshall pleaded guilty to conspiring to distribute oxycodone and was sentenced to 118 months of prison plus six years of supervised release. After completing his sentence, Marshall began supervised release. Although required to stay in Kentucky, Marshall moved to Illinois, violating a release condition. The district court briefly revoked Marshall’s release. Marshall moved, with permission, to Michigan. For the next year, Marshall made progress. The probation office recommended an early end to his supervised release. Marshall filed an unopposed motion to end the supervision. The court denied his request, reasoning that Marshall had completed little of the release term and had violated the conditions before. The Sixth Circuit dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction. There is no statute authorizing the review of a district court’s decision to deny a motion for early termination of supervised release. The court reviewed the challenges available under 18 U.S.C. 3742(a) and concluded that none of the four categories applies. Marshall never appealed his original or his new sentence; the district court did not issue a new sentence or an amended sentence before this appeal. It merely denied Marshall’s request to reduce the supervised release provision in his sentence. View "United States v. Marshall" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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In 2001, Woods pled guilty to possessing and conspiring to possess with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of cocaine base, aiding and abetting possession with intent to distribute cocaine and to distribute marijuana, and possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. The parties stipulated to Woods’s possession of 125 grams of crack cocaine, .73 grams of powder cocaine, and 660.1 grams of marijuana. Under the then-Guidelines, the PSR recommended a range of 121-151 months of imprisonment and an additional mandatory 60-month consecutive term for the firearm charge. The district court sentenced Woods to 121 months plus the consecutive 60- month sentence. In 2008, in response to Guidelines amendments, the district court reduced Woods’s sentence from 181 months to 120 months. Woods began his supervised release in 2015. While on release, he tested positive for cocaine and marijuana and pled guilty to new felony state charges—trafficking in controlled substances, possessing a handgun, and tampering with physical evidence. The court revoked Woods’s supervised release and imposed a 37-month sentence. Woods moved, under the 2018 First Step Act, 132 Stat. 5194, to reduce his sentence. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of Woods’s motion. Although he is currently serving a post-revocation sentence, Woods is eligible for consideration of a reduction but is not entitled to one. The court adequately considered factors warranting denial of a reduction: respecting the law, protecting the public, and adequately deterring similar conduct. View "United States v. Woods" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Law enforcement executed a search warrant to gather evidence of the possession, receipt, and distribution of child pornography. The subject stated that he received and distributed child pornography through his Kik Messenger account and consented to the officers assuming his online identity. The operation led to a Kik user with an IP address registered Randall Hollon of Corbin, Kentucky. FBI agents executed a search warrant for Hollon’s residence and found pornographic images of prepubescent boys on Hollon’s electronic devices. Hollon was charged with distributing, possession of, and receiving child pornography each in violation of different provisions of 18 U.S.C. 2252(a)(2) and with engaging in a child exploitation enterprise, 18 U.S.C. 2252A(g)--the enterprise consisting of section 2252(a)(2) violations. Hollon pled guilty to engaging in a child exploitation enterprise, admitting that he was an administrator of a group, the purpose of which was the distribution and receipt of child pornography. The government then disclosed that Hollon’s nephew, “J.H.”, had reported that, years earlier, he discovered child pornography on Hollon’s electronic devices and that Hollon engaged in sexual behavior with J.H., then a child. The Sixth Circuit affirmed Hollon’s sentence of 270 months of incarceration, rejecting an argument that the district court erred in applying the covered sex crime enhancement under U.S.S.G. 4B1.5(b). Engaging in a child exploitation enterprise is a “covered sex crime” for purposes of the U.S.S.G. 4B1.5(b) sentencing enhancement. View "United States v. Hollon" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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At 11:53, Tennessee Highway Troopers stopped Hernandez for speeding and ran a warrant-check Hernandez and Betancourt, the front seat passenger and the car's owner. The check came back negative at 11:59. Troopers were denied consent to search the car. At 12:13, Troopers searched the names of all four occupants of the car through a more comprehensive database. A K-9 unit arrived at 12:17. The dog sniffed the outside of the car, alerting to the odor of drugs. The dog did not alert again when allowed into the car. After checking with their supervisor, Troopers manually searched the car and found re-encoded gift cards and suspected amphetamines. The car's occupants were arrested and held for months before all charges were dropped. They filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983. The district court granted the Troopers qualified immunity on the car search based on caselaw existing at that time. A jury found that the car stop was not impermissibly prolonged. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. The plaintiffs have not met the high burden of showing that the verdict was unreasonable as a matter of law. A reasonable jury could have concluded that, because the dog's first search was not sufficiently thorough, it did not dissipate the probable cause justifying a second search. At the time, a reasonable officer would not have been on notice that the dog’s failure to alert again to the car's interior was the kind of new information that dissipated the probable cause provided by its initial alert. View "Hernandez v. Boles" on Justia Law

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Tolliver was charged with participating in a marijuana distribution ring that funneled money and drugs between a California supplier and a large-scale Memphis dealer. A jury acquitted him on the marijuana conspiracy but convicted Toliver of money laundering conspiracy. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, rejecting a claim under the Speedy Trial Act, 18 U.S.C. 3162(a)(2). A defendant can only complain about a speedy trial violation after the violation has occurred; Tolliver’s objection was premature. A rational trier of fact could have found Tolliver guilty. Payment for drugs can constitute promotional money laundering. The prosecution presented the right type of evidence to prove promotional money laundering and showed that Tolliver made financial transactions with money from illegal marijuana sales. There was compelling circumstantial evidence showing he knew what he was doing. In ordering forfeiture of the money laundered and of property traceable to the crime, 21 U.S.C. 853(a), the district court properly included some of Tolliver’s gambling winnings. Tolliver gambled hundreds of thousands of dollars but apparently had no source of income besides the cuts he got from money-laundering. Tolliver filed no tax return for two years. He was a long-time gambler, but the amount of money he gambled skyrocketed once he joined the conspiracy. View "United States v. Tolliver" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law